It’s been going on for too long, right before our eyes. Inevitably, someone was going to blow the whistle, and wouldn’t you know it would be Felix Salmon, the famous financial blogger for Reuters?
The name Felix Salmon (for some reason) always makes me think of those plastic singing fish that were all the rage a few years ago. You remember: They appeared to be mounted on a board (also plastic) and they would burst remorselessly into song and could be impossible to turn off without opening up the back and taking out the batteries.
I’ve admired Felix’s judgment and foresight ever since the day, a few years ago, he wisely turned down a job that I offered him at a new publication. In the end, the publication never came into existence: Something he saw coming that I did not. Although he dithered flatteringly, in the end this Salmon refused to be poached.
Nothing, though, prepared me for the dazzling brilliance of Felix’s blog item this week about the quality of writing on the Internet. It’s bad, he says, much of it, but that’s good. Well, maybe not actually good, but not bad. How so? Well, it’s a bit hard to follow the thread of his argument (thus, some might say quite unfairly, demonstrating his thesis even as he lays it out). But his basic point is that on the Web, sheer quantity trumps quality. He praises the editor of the New York Observer for dispensing with editors: She “doesn’t have either the time or the money to have a layer of experienced journalists reworking her bloggers’ prose before it’s published.” He continues:
“And so, in the proud tradition of good blogs everywhere, readers are left with a highly variable product. The great is rare; the dull quite common. But — and this is the genius of the online format — that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to. When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it — even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. The less you worry about quality control at the low end, the more opportunities you get to print stories which will be shared or searched for or just hit some kind of nerve.”
I believe his “stories which” in the passage quoted above should actually be “stories that.” But if his point is that no sane businessperson is any longer going to pay some pedant as much as $8.50 an hour (or even more!) just to catch this kind of mistake, he is hard to argue with.
Occasionally over the years, I have attempted to argue that factual accuracy is overrated. I won’t bore you with the reasons, but it struck me as a good, solid, counterintuitive belief to lug around and display occasionally. Never did it occur to me, until I read Felix’s blog post, that it might be possible, without seeming insane, to argue that all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what’s the difference between those two again?) — are all overrated.
Yet I have seen the literary sweatshops where young graduates of top universities are chained to their desks, grinding out one blog post after another. An editor doesn’t hesitate to use his whip: “More! Blog faster! Quantity over quality!”
“But sir, I don’t know the first thing about fracking,” says a bleary-eyed intern facing his next assignment. It’s 9 in the morning, and he’s already written four 1,000-word posts: one assessing the literary merits of a newly discovered Jane Austen novel, another about prospects for ostrich farming in Kenya, and two predicting the results of tight races in faraway congressional districts.
“Don’t be such a wuss, Norman,” the editor says. “Everybody is writing about fracking. You think anyone else has any idea what it is? It’s got something to do with energy, and I think we’re against it. What more do you need to know?”
My first reaction to all this is that when a top blogger declares the death of good writing, my job should get a good deal easier. Not that I (or anyone else — except possibly for George Will) actually achieve good writing most of the time, but even the aspiration can be exhausting. Now one of our nation’s leading bloggers has confessed what we all suspected: that bad writing is inherent to the online world. Felix calmly concedes that it is spreading inexorably back into print, and claims to find this a wonderful development. We can all relax and write badly without guilt.
On the other hand, if bad writing is the norm, what need is there for publishers to hire writers who can occasionally produce the good stuff? A job that gets too easy is probably going to be found superfluous sooner or later. Felix invites editors to “throw up everything.” Not, perhaps, the ideal metaphor. It will put me off Salmon for a week.